Of course I believe in the importance of nature a bit more strongly than the average person. But our lives are still the sums of many different factors, some genetic, some nurture, some random. We also have something that feels like free will, crazy as that may sound; we are not doomed to eternally repeat the sins of our parents just because we saw them do something bad when we were three, nor are we condemned to robotically enact whatever flaws are encoded in our DNA. We are complicated.
I recently read a very interesting article about a man who discovered, via DNA testing, that his father (and grandfather) wasn’t really his father:
In the first phase, I was numb: no shock, anger, disappointment—just bewilderment. It was sohard to grasp. Unimaginable. It was hard to think clearly. And yet, a tiny bit of relief. Maybe truth would yield clarity and understanding of my father’s actions. This secondary sensation was the beginning of a wholly unexpected change in my internal being.
The second phase—feeling unmoored—was by far the hardest. Who am I? From where do I come? And who is this unknown man living in my body, coursing through my veins? I would subconsciously shake my hands trying to get him out of me. And worst, with my mother and the father who raised me both deceased, would I ever find the truth, get to the answers I was seeking? When you think you understand your origins, there is no obsessive need to explore and connect; you are satisfied knowing there is an origin and your ancestors and family members can be searched and contacted whenever needed. But when that assumption is taken away, you truly are an alien.
I should note that unlike Professor Schreiber, I had very decent parents; I have nothing to be ungrateful for beyond the normal vagaries of family life.
But the sense of being alien is still there; I always feel myself floating between worlds. There’s the world I was raised in, which I know culturally and can imitate quite effortlessly, (aside from a certain striver efficiency that seems more innate); then the world I talk to on the telephone, where people make the same sort of stupid mistakes as I do, but the cultural context is missing.
The advent of the internet is easing this gab, by the way, as the younger folks in my generation and I share more online culture.
Cultural things can get a good laugh out of you–you and someone else liked the same show, or went to the same park, or enjoyed the same brand of hot dogs–while innate things can strike very deep. Finding out that your brother got in trouble for the same distinct habits that you got in trouble for, or that you see in your own children, is really something. You look at this person and realize that despite this cultural and experiential gulf between you, you understand them–and they understand you.
The fellow in the article ended up with a bunch of new relatives, which he found very rewarding. For most adoptees, contacting biological family is iffy. People who gave you up when you were an infant may not want you in their lives, may not be good people, or may just be dead. But extended family never gave you up; extended family tends not to have all of that awkward parental baggage, either. They’re just potential siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., you’ve never met, and meeting them can be quite interesting.
I find that people really focus on adoptees’ parents, so I would just like to reiterate that biological families are more than just parents. They are cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc. They are entire families. Even people whose biological parents have given them good reason to never contact them (or are dead) may want to contact the rest of their biological families.
And like the good professor, I’ve found that meeting family from very different walks of life than my own has exposed me to very different perspectives. It is interesting seeing how similar people cope with very different situations–the things that stay the same (eg, dorkiness); the things that differ (attitudes toward guns).
Like they say, it’s about half nurture, half nature, half random chance, and half what you make of it.
(Just to be clear, yes, I know that’s not how halves work.)